"When we eat together, when we set out to do so deliberately, life is better, no matter your circumstances. Whether it's a sad or difficult time, whether it's an ordinary-seeming day, or whether it's a time of celebration, our lives are enriched when we share meals together. And that's what the food in this book is all about." — Thomas Keller
I've eaten quite well at Thomas Keller's 'everyday' Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville, CA, so I was really looking forward to this book. I was instantly rewarded on page two by the first recipe. The book is inspired by Mr. Keller's father and the last meal he cooked for him before he died. Rather than individual recipes, the recipe and list of ingredients was for the whole meal: barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes and collard greens, and strawberry shortcake for desert. The way the recipe became a story and the story became a tribute to his father was very touching and sets the tone for this honest, straightforward cookbook.
Title & Publisher: Ad Hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller with Dave Cruz and along with Susie Heller, Michael Ruhlman and Amy Vogler. Published by Artisan, 2009.
First impressions: An oversized, sturdy hardback, this book fits right in with Keller's other titles (The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon, etc). At 368 pages and 250 photographs it is generous, lush and quite a handful.
Number of recipes: Well over 250
The angle: Thomas Keller, perhaps today's most famous and well-respected chef, takes on home cooked classics and they're all here: burgers, mac 'n' cheese, fried chicken, coleslaw, bread pudding. But don't get the impression that Mr. Keller has abandoned his high-church culinary roots completely. Take for example his recipe for vegetable soup (Spring Vegetable Garbure.) In addition to quoting Escoffier, he asks for a pork skin (or parchment paper) lid for sweating the veg which are then discarded after they've done their duty by flavoring the chicken stock. The real vegetables for the soup are poached one at a time and added in at the very end. That's not how my mom did it! Nonetheless, the overall tone is kept casual with chalkboard diagrams and pictures of Mr. Keller wearing a simple denim apron and acting a little goofy.
The other stuff: Many of the basics are covered here such as how to make a good salad dressing, fry a chicken, build a salad, create a cheese course, and whip up some homemade ice cream. Scattered throughout the book are tips and techniques marked by a little lightbulb as well as whole pages on topics like using fats, deep frying, and the importance of resting meat after cooking. My favorite section is called Lifesavers which is all about stocking the pantry with homemade provisions like Rainier Cherries with Rum and Vanilla, Herbed Roasted Walnuts, Apricot-Currant Compote, Artichoke Tapenade, Pickled Baby Leeks, and Green Grapes with Green Curry. I'd very happily spend the rest of my life in such a pantry!
Strengths: There's actually quite a lot I would cook in this book. It offers basic, practical advise on foundational things like stocks, salad dressings, meat cuts. The recipes are very well-written and trustworthy. I do have to say that I wish the book itself weren't so big. Honestly, I can't take it with me into the kitchen because once opened, it takes up most of my available counter space. So I've either had to copy the recipe out or run over to the book resting on a chair just outside the kitchen door. (OK, I have a really small kitchen.)
Recipes for right now: Linzer Cookies, Grapefruit Cake, Lemon Bars with Meringue, Apple Fritters, Soup Crackers, Red Onion-Cranberry Marmalade, Glazed Sweet Potatoes, Leek Bread Pudding, Butter-Braised Radishes, Kohlrabi, and Brussels Sprouts, Chicken Soup with Dumplings, Fig-Stuffed Pork Loin, Blowtorch Prime Rib Roast.
Recommended? Yes, and here's why. When Gourmet folded, I was especially disappointed because I was planning on giving subscriptions to my college-age nieces who are just setting up kitchens of their own. I knew Gourmet was going to be over their heads and that a beginner's cookbook would be more practical. But I didn't want to just feed them recipes, I wanted to inspire them. I wanted to plant seeds and open their horizons with new tastes and experiences. Ad Hoc at Home may well be my fallback this Christmas because while it is as friendly and approachable as everyone says, it also offers something more: a request to reach a little higher, to respect and attend to detail, and best of all, to explore and experience the deeply satisfying realms of cooking, eating and sharing the table with friends. What gift could be greater than that?
• Buy the book, right now a steal at 55% off: Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller, $22.75 (Amazon)
More 2009 Book Reviews
• Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo
• The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
• Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts Francini